LGBT+ lives online: How has the internet and social media changed our offline worlds?

With more of our time being spent on the internet during lockdown, how are our online and offline lives impacting one another?

A close up of a hipster woman's hands holding a mobile phone

The sprawling worlds in our pockets are often downplayed, but when we find the chance, we jump inside – the internet has never been more consuming. Surfing the web is mostly spent alone, with our head bent, fingers dancing over the tumbling glare, but what makes it so enticing is the possibility of connection. Social media platforms are where people can now develop their relationship with themselves, but they are also a meeting place, where alliances are formed, and opposition spotted. For the LGBT+ community, the globalised, digital world can have a profound allure, but how do our online and offline lives impact one another? Are we juggling worlds?

While social media is often cast as ironically ‘anti-social’, it can now be used as a tool to self actualise, it provides a personal space to look inward and develop a greater understanding of one’s identity. What was initially established to connect with others, can foster a greater connection with oneself – for many, the internet is where they realised they are not alone, where they began to see themselves in others, see others in themselves, and began to understand their identity within a greater context.

The internet is also a place for debate and discussion, it is where people band together, organise and have the potential to reach out to the rest of the world beyond the parameters of time and space. For movements like marriage equality and repeal, it can’t be denied that online campaigns, celebrity endorsements, and even profile picture banners played a role in their success.

Online platforms for marginalised groups are now being continually established; they broadcast educational campaigns, call on people to share their experiences and artists to participate in inclusive exhibitions and projects. They have supported the increasing visibility of the LGBT+ community, providing opportunities to build communities, unrestricted by the speed bumps and closed doors erected by the structural inequalities in society. 

Online communities, like offline cliques, form by like attracting like, but while we ultimately cannot choose who we come across in our daily lives, our online circles are carefully curated. We choose who we see and who can see us, we can permanently remove people from our sight, and report them for doing something we don’t like, we can build a digital bubble that is more exclusive than any ‘real word’ friend group. 

When an online community becomes close, the once revered solidarity and good intentions which constituted its foundation can sometimes morph into a feedback loop and the same arguments reverberate around ad infinitum. Growth is delayed for those stuck in this feedback loop, and for those on the outside with little to no knowledge of the genealogy of such communities, they can begin to paint us all with the same brush. Keeping the debate online can lead to polarisation, allowing fringe ideas on both sides to fester.

This ‘sudden emergence’ of a people who were not as visible offline can be threatening to some. For the trolls operating under the banner of thwarted white masculinity, the new culture of representative diversity seen in the blossoming of the online LGBT+ community is a challenge to their self-esteem. For these groups, the ‘snowflakes of identity politics’ have become the punchline for many desperate jokes made in the fear of being undermined. The new visibility of the online LGBT+ generation has allowed for a wider conversation, but it has also left them vulnerable to abuse.

The speedy formation of online communities can also lead to internal dissent and digital civil wars where bullying, doxing and eventual cancelling are social media weapons of choice. But what good can this do for an already fractured community? Contra Points, a trans YouTuber who shares aesthetic video essays on politics, gender and online culture was recently ‘cancelled’ for her decision to include a controversial trans figure in one of her videos. In response, she argued that: “my experiences have made me so disillusioned with the idea that social media call outs can lead to any kind of justice that I’ve essentially sworn off participating in them (…) cancelling is not criticism, it is not holding someone accountable, it is an attack on a human being.”

Once upon a time social media was where we could document our ‘real’ lives, it was a secondary narrative comprised of holiday photos and msn. Today, the online world appears to drive itself, it is where people are made and broken, where crimes are committed, scandals unfold, jobs created, relationships sparked and ended, social media no longer mirrors our offline world, daily life can now be seen to revolve around virtual events.

So, what role does the internet play in movements for equality? The way we act online mirrors the way we act offline; fundamentally, we are all social creatures seeking acceptance, and our efforts to find that online have descended into entropy: a complicated network of connections which reflect our need for authentic relationships. While social media has allowed us to build our own platforms and increase visibility for our communities online, we are still operating within a greater platform (Instagram, Twitter, Facebook) which has its own algorithms, rules, terms and conditions, formulated according to corporate values

Advancements can be made online, but it will forever be a leaderless, de-centralised battle unless we merge our worlds in a way that retains the integrity of authentic connection. Online activism needs to have an offline impact, social media isn’t going away any time soon – we have to stop underestimating its influence and use these remarkable tools of connection to gain direction and stand united in every sense of the word.

Blogger Mark Fisher summed this up: ‘We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication. We need to think strategically about how to use social media – always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital.’

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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